Learn and Generate Bibliographies, Citations, and Works Cited

Understanding Primary and Secondary Sources

No matter what editorial style you use for your school essay — MLA, APA or Chicago — you will need to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. Indeed, most papers include a combination of both. It’s important to learn how to evaluate sources, so you can be sure you’re only using material and data prepared by authoritative sources.

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Examples of Primary Sources

Primary research is studying a subject using firsthand investigations, such as:

  • Conducting your own survey
  • Conducting your own interviews
  • Your own original research
  • Laboratory experiments

Primary sources are original documents. For example:

  • Historical documents – photos, letters, diaries
  • Statistical data – original research
  • Artwork – paintings at museums
  • Books – autobiographies

You can find free access to primary sources in many online databases and libraries.

Conducting Your Own Research

In a short quarter or semester class, you probably won’t be conducting your own large research project. However, it is possible you may be asked to conduct a study using interviews. Interviews can be conducted one-on-one. You may also use an online survey poll, such as Survey Monkey. In your research paper, you will describe the research methods you used, under a section titled “Methods.”

Research Methods

A term you’ll hear frequently in your classes is “methodology.” Methodology refers how you justify the methods you used in your research.

For example, you may use qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods to conduct your research. In your methods section, you discuss how data was collected and analyzed. Your explanation of the selected research methods is the methodology.

Understanding research methods will take some studying using different resources. For now, here is a brief overview:

Qualitative Methods:
  • Interviews
  • Content analysis


Quantitative Methods:
  • Numerical data
  • Questionnaires/surveys


Mixed Methods

As the name suggests, mixed methods combine both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Secondary Research and Sources

Students discussing Primary and Secondary Sources for research assignment

Secondary research examines other researchers’ studies. Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Reference works
  • Articles about historical events
  • Essays about literature
  • Literature reviews about existing research


Interviews can be primary or secondary sources, depending on the format. If you have conducted an interview personally or if the interview is in its original format, it is a primary source. However, if you are reading about an interview in a newspaper written by someone else, it is a secondary source. Either way, interviews can be good sources for your paper.

Evaluate Your Sources Carefully

As you enter college writing classes, knowing how to select and evaluate sources is going to be a critical skill. Usually, your instructor will provide guidance on the types of research and how many primary and secondary sources are required for your MLA, APA format or Chicago style citations paper. So, be sure to follow those guidelines.

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